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Gulf war update: assessing the damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just assessed what it calls Saddam Hussien's "environmental atrocities." While "the magnitude of environmental destruction has been tragic," things could have been much worse, according to the 68-page, congressionally commissioned report, released Oct. 25.

Iraqi troops systematically ignited or damaged 749 Kuwaiti oil wells last February, causing 610 uncontrolled well fires (SN: 7/13/91, p.24). As of June, those fires still emitted about 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide daily into the atmosphere -- roughly 3 percent of the emissions from fossil-fuel burning worldwide. However, the resulting smoke plume remained between 1,500 and 13,000 feet -- too low to cause any massive global climate change. Indeed, the EPA report concludes, the data clearly rule out a "nuclear winter" scenario and indicate that most of the environmental damage will likely remain confined to the Gulf region. Last week, firefighters reported capping the final burning well.

While levels of oily, dust-like particulars in and around Kuwait City exceeded U.S. air-quality standards, the reports says that although July (the latest period for which data were available), "there was no documented increase in the proportion of visits to hospital emergency rooms for acute upper and lower respiratory infections or asthma compared to the period before the fires were ignited."

Now for the bad news: EPA estimates that Irag's late-January sabotage of Kuwaiti oil-production facilities (SN: 2/2/91, p.71) ultimately discharged between 6 million and 8 million barrels of oil Into the Persian Gulf, creating a spill up to 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez accident. Through April, oil continued to flow into the Gulf from several damaged facilities at rates that varied from hundreds to thousands of barrels per day.

Because mines and warfare severely limited subsequent oil-recovery and environmental-protection programs, the on-scene coordinator used a triage system to focus these efforts. Top priority went to corralling the oil in booms and cleaning up shoreline areas around key facilities, such as Saudi Arabia's Jubayl desalination plant -- the world's largest. While the plant survived, many other areas suffered.

In some regions, for instance, beached oil mixed with sand to create a layer of asphalt 1 foot thick. The most heavily affected areas include salt marshes, mangrove swamps and intertidal creeks and streams. These ecosystems serve not only as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and shellfish, but also as nesting areas for many birds, including the flamingo and an endangered cormorant.

Overall, recovery efforts removed only 1.4 million barrels of oil from the water and shoreline; this waste now sits in storage pits awaiting disposal. Because no one knows how much oil ultimately reached beaches, settled into the Gulf's sediments or evaporated, EPA concludes that the level of "remediation necessary to restore ecological functions is not known."
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Title Annotation:Environment; Persian Gulf War
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 16, 1991
Words:465
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